Eleven important Acadia National Park events shaped the decade at the Maine national park and left some lasting changes including new records in visits, a generous donation of land and projects in the Schoodic section, the park’s 100th anniversary, a new superintendent, a presidential visit and a heightened awareness of climate change.
Here are some key moments, happenings and trends that dominated Acadia National Park during the 2010s:
Legacy of President Barack Obama
A presidential visit may have been the most memorable of Acadia National Park events. On the heels of his biggest political victory – passage of a national health insurance plan – Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit Acadia National Park. The president’s family vacation in July 2010 drew crowds and created a lot of excitement in Bar Harbor and the park. Obama, his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha spent three days in the park including hiking the summit loop on Cadillac Mountain and Ship Harbor and visiting Bass Harbor Head Light. While the short vacation put the national spotlight on Acadia, possibly Obama’s most important legacy in Maine occurred in August 2016 when he used the Antiquities Act to unilaterally approve a new national monument – the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Both Acadia and the new Maine monument were created with private land donations and both overcame political hurdles. Obama also started the Every Kid in a Park initiative in 2015, renewed every year since, in which the National Park Service gives every fourth grader and family free admission to national parks. President Donald J. Trump has affirmed Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and Every Kid in a Park (although the Trump administration now calls it Every Kid Outdoors).
Climate change consequences in Acadia
During the decade, climate change emerged as possibly the biggest environmental threat facing Acadia National Park, partly fueled by a Portland-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute study in 2014 that found the Gulf of Maine warmed faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. The effects of climate change in Acadia were underscored with the opening of an exhibit on the topic at an upgraded Sieur de Monts Nature Center in 2016 and efforts by the park to study the issue. Seeking to educate the public on the current and future impacts of climate change, the provocative Nature Center exhibit examines the crisis out to 2050 including on the park’s summits, where certain subalpine species like alpine azalea may perish with warmer temperatures and lower elevation plants may move up to supplant them, on salt marshes possibly flooded by rising sea levels, on lobsters, which are moving north to colder waters. Park staff is attempting to plan for any future sea level rise on infrastructure such as at Thunder Hole, certain roads and the hiking trails close to the coast. Rising global temperatures may also have contributed to a boom in visits during October, which rose to a record 507,595 in 2017, up 75 percent from 289,114 in 2010. The park is also aiming to increase use of the fare-free Island Explorer partly to reduce the number of private vehicles and carbon emissions, which contribute to trapping heat on the planet.
Dealing with a record number of visitors, Acadia National Park approved a sweeping transportation plan intended to reduce traffic at popular destinations and better control parking from about mid-June to mid-October. The most disputed part of the plan, released in March of 2019, calls for a timed reservation system at a fee of likely less than $10 for cars on Cadillac Mountain, the north lot of Jordan Pond and the Ocean Drive corridor. The reservation system is tentatively planned to start in 2021. Other parts of the transportation plan include expanded use of the fare-free Island Explorer, parking expansion at the Hulls Cove Visitors Center, eventually abolishing right lane parking now allowed on sections of the Park Loop Road and removal of an existing parking lot and restroom on the north side of Route 233 at Eagle Lake to be replaced with a new, 125-space parking lot constructed south of the highway at an NPS maintenance storage yard known as Liscomb Pit. Acadia National Park events and meetings were held to air a draft transportation plan and receive public comment in the spring of 2018.
New superintendent, key retirements
Kevin Schneider was named as superintendent of Acadia National Park and St. Croix Island International Historic Site in December 2015, replacing Sheridan Steele, who began as superintendent in 2003. Schneider oversaw release of the transportation plan for the park, helped celebrate the park’s centennial during his first year and served during the busiest visitation years in the park’s history. Before starting at Acadia, Schneider was most recently deputy superintendent of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The park lost some key institutional knowledge and skills, when longtime Acadia Ranger and natural resource specialist Charlie Jacobi retired at the end of 2017, park wildlife biologist Bruce Connery retired about a year later, and Chief Ranger Stuart West, a 16-year Acadia veteran, left at the end of September 2019 to become the new superintendent for the High Plains Group of parks in Colorado and New Mexico.
Expansion of national park on the Schoodic Peninsula
In the early part of the decade, some 3,200 acres of open space on the Schoodic peninsula abutting Acadia National Park was targeted for a huge resort development, including a hotel and golf course, but in 2011 an anonymous buyer purchased the property and donated 1,400 acres south of Route 186. The donor paid for planning and design, construction and furnishing of the beautiful Schoodic Woods Campground, 100-seat amphitheater, ranger station and visitor center, maintenance building, 8.5 miles of multipurpose paths styled after the park’s carriage roads, 4.5 miles of new hiking trails, an underground utility line along the main road and a causeway bike lane and bridge. The causeway was a separate project because it was inside the park, but everything else was done by a contractor hired by the donor, said Sheridan Steele, former superintendent of Acadia who represented the park in planning and design and provided a park engineer to help oversee the actual construction work. “Saving this extraordinary property, including two islands and about a mile of shoreline south of 186, by itself was a spectacular victory for those who wished to see the amazing natural values and high quality visitor experience in Acadia NP forever protected,” Steele wrote in an email. “The end result has become a dramatic example of the incredible generosity and conservation leadership of Acadia’s donors, volunteers and partners. Working together with Acadia’s dedicated professionals, the larger team effort sets Acadia apart from many other national parks.”
The Schoodic Woods Campground, which opened in September 2015, includes 33 RV sites with water and power, including 20 pull-through; 50 car tent sites with electric, including 26 listed as for tents only and 9 private hike-in sites.
The decade also saw the official naming of the Schoodic Institute in 2013 and further improvements to the institute’s campus, built on a former Navy base, which closed in 2002. The campus offers housing and meals for individual researchers, groups and conferences, classrooms, laboratories, and a modern 124-seat auditorium.
Loss of a giant environmentalist
Of all Acadia National Park events, the death of David Rockefeller in March 2017 was among the saddest, marking a huge loss for the park as well as the rest of Maine. Rockefeller was noted for donating coastal properties and conservation easements in Maine and providing major contributions to conservation organizations. He was the youngest child of John D. Rockefeller Jr., a friend of park co-founder George B. Dorr who donated about 11,000 acres to the park and financed construction of 45 miles of carriage roads. David Rockefeller’s wife, Peggy, who died in 1996, was a founder of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust in 1970 and also an important advocate for preserving open space in Maine. When he turned 100 in 2015, David Rockefeller gave a 1,000-acre reserve of pristine woodlands with views over the Great Harbor to the Land & Garden Preserve. The Maine Coast Heritage Trust worked with him to create public access at a number of sites on Mount Desert Island including areas at Lower Day Mountain and Hunter’s Beach. He also donated Little Long Pond and guaranteed public access to its extensive trails and carriage roads.
Acadia National Park and the National Park Service both celebrated centennials in 2016. The park was established as the Sieur de Monts National Monument on July 8, 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson and Wilson signed a law to create the National Park Service on Aug. 25, 1916. The centennial celebration was organized by the Acadia Centennial Task Force, co-chaired by Jack Russell and Cookie Horner. More than 70 Acadia National Park events and other experiences filled up the official centennial calendar, featuring programs, occasions and celebrations during every month, and involving some of the more than 250 Centennial partners.
New and improved hiking trails, other facilities
Acadia inaugurated the Quarry and Otter Cove Trails in 2014 connecting Gorham Mountain, Sand Beach and Otter Cove to the Blackwoods Campground. The new trail and rehabilitations on many other trails received federal dollars and funds from Acadia Trails Forever, a special endowment started in 1999 for the park. The $13 million fund to benefit the trails includes $9 million in private donations raised by the Friends of Acadia and $4 million in federal funds, mostly from the park’s entry fees.
An extensive rehabilitation of the historic Valley Cove Trail was completed by the Acadia trails crew and the trail opened in October of 2019. The trail, which had been closed for about three years, is located on the east side of St. Sauveur Mountain and runs along the west shore of Somes Sound.
The trails crew, led by foreman Gary Stellpflug, finished countless important trail rehabilitations during the 2010s including Acadia Mountain, Flying Mountain, Ship Harbor, Gorge Path, the Asticou Trail, Jordan Cliffs, Jordan Stream Path, the Cadillac Cliffs Trail, the Deer Brook Trail, Ocean Path and the Valley Trail.
Another major upgrade at Acadia included the the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, the main visitor center for Acadia National Park, which received $1.2 million in renovations during a project completed in 2019.
New “wayside exhibits,” funded by a $450,000 grant from the National Park Service, were installed at the park including on Mount Desert Island in the fall of 2014. The exhibits feature colorful and succinct explainers on the geology, oceanography, wildlife, botany, scenic views and history of the park and orientation around the park.
Federal government shutdowns rattle Acadia
Acadia National Park events and work were interrupted by two major US government shutdowns during the decade including one that came during the peak of the fall tourist season and then a winter shutdown that was the longest in history. A 16-day shutdown that started Oct. 1, 2013 dramatically cut visits to the park during a traditionally busy month and hurt sales at hotels, restaurants and other businesses in Bar Harbor. The National Park Service closed all national park units during the shutdown, which was caused by a lapse in appropriations. In a report, the National Park Service estimated that visits to Acadia fell by 192,000, or 67 percent, from the average for the month for the three prior years and visitor spending plummeted to $8 million from an average $24.1 million, even accounting for a possible rescheduling of visits to the final two weeks of October or a shifting of spending to other non-NPS sites. During the 2013 shutdown, all park roads — including the Park Loop and the road to the summit of Cadillac Mountain — were shut to traffic. Hiking trails and carriage roads were also are closed during 2013. Hikers and bike riders entered the park around barricades but at one point rangers fined people who used scooters or mopeds.
A 35-day shutdown, starting on Dec. 22, 2018, had little economic impact on surrounding communities because it came during the slowest time of year for Acadia and Bar Harbor. During the partial shutdown, certain gates at Acadia and many other national parks were kept open for visitors, but most staff was put on furlough. Fortunately, Acadia escaped the vandalism that occurred at some big parks in the West. The shutdown did postpone the start of a vehicle reservation system at Acadia for a year, because almost all of the park’s 80-90 full-time staff, including Superintendent Kevin Schneider, were put on furlough and finalization of the transportation plan was delayed. When staff returned to work, the priority was to compensate for lost time by hiring seasonal staff for 2019 and to prepare the park for visitors.
Acadia sets records for visits
With the nation emerging from the Great Recession at the turn of the decade, it seemed people were looking for an escape and Acadia National Park benefited. The country’s eighth most visited National Park, Acadia set an attendance record in 2017 with more than 3.509 million visits, up 40 percent from 2.5 million in 2010. Visits were down slightly in 2018 and 2019 but only by about 1 percent from the peak. National polls showed the park was growing in popularity as the economy improved. In 2014, Acadia was selected America’s favorite place by viewers of “Good Morning America” and the No. 1 National Park by readers of USA Today. Some might say the park became too popular at certain times. Traffic congestion forced the closure of the summit road to Cadillac Mountain 58 times in 2019 and the road to Bass Harbor Head Light 32 times, demonstrating the need for a reservation system to park at certain popular attractions. During 2019, July 5 was the busiest day in the history of Acadia with visits exceeding 35,000 for the day and also a hectic one for rangers and rescue personnel responding to a string of hiking mishaps.
Backlog of maintenance and fee hike
Advocates for national parks, including the Friends of Acadia and the National Park Service, underscored the need for reducing a logjam of maintenance work. Of the nearly $12 billion of deferred maintenance in national parks across the country, Acadia weighed in with nearly $60 million. The work includes upgrades to old buildings, waste water systems, roads, dams and campgrounds.
A Senate committee in November 2019 approved the Restore Our Parks Act to reduce the maintenance backlog, but the future of the bill is unclear. A lead sponsor of the bill, Sen. Angus King, said Acadia is being “loved to death,” with annual visitation equal to almost three times the 1.3 million population of the state of Maine. To raise money for deferred maintenance, the Department of Interior in 2017 proposed a new five-month peak season annual fee of $70 for 7 days at Acadia and 16 other parks, but after an outcry, the annual fee at Acadia saw a modest increase from $50 to $55 in 2018 and the one-week pass per vehicle rose from $25 to $30.